Gay identity is denied in most Muslim countries. That there are men and women within those areas who primarily love people of their own gender is a biological certainty. But most of them would not label themselves ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’, they would see the attraction as just one small aspect of themselves that they try to fit into their lives while adhering to what is expected of them by friends and – especially – family. Family is very important, both caring for the current generation as well as raising the next one. Getting married before you are thirty and having children is the only accepted way to live in many places. Not doing so could lead to loss of honour for you and your family. This means that most gay love and lust takes place behind closed doors and isn’t acknowledged even while everybody around knows it happens. As long as there are no witnesses and it isn’t talked about, everybody can pretend that no social mores are being broken.
Considering that gay sex is officially frowned upon and even punishable by death in many Muslim countries, the casual intimacy between men is one that will surprise many tourists. Much more than in Western countries, men are likely to be seen touching each other in a physically intimate way or even walking around the city hand in hand. The ‘Western’ gay identity threatens this way of interacting with each other by making it look suspect and threatens the entire family-oriented society. It introduces new options and choices that could upset the basis on which the society is built. Gay Muslims may start to question things and realise that the way their heart is pulling them does not have to point towards certain doom, but could lead them to a happy, if alternative, family life.
Gay Travels in the Muslim World is a series of autobiographical short stories, edited by Michael Luongo. It gives an impression of the Muslim world as described above. The majority of them deal with contrasts and conflicts between Western culture and Muslim culture, from varied perspectives. Most of the stories were written by Western visitors, one or two by people within the culture. The style, tone and attitudes of the writers vary, and while some of the tales are likely to annoy you, you will find a couple that are touching and interesting. I liked the story of an American who starts a long-distance romance with a Turk, only to find out he is married and has children. Rather than break up with his long-term lover, the Turkish man integrates him as an ‘uncle’ into his family, where he is lovingly accepted.
Not all stories are sweet though; in several of them, local men desperate for money and tourists desperate for sex with locals meet each other on a sharp and uncomfortable knife’s edge between two cultures, using each other for selfish purposes.
All in all it is an interesting collection, well worth a read for anybody interested in this different perspective on gay identity. And if you want to take a more academic look at the topic, you may want to pick up Unspeakable Love – Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East.